Government and governance, International relations | The World

22 March 2018

It’s hard to read the significance of an election in a phoney democracy like Russia. Matthew Sussex examines the spectacle.

It’s fair to say that nobody was very surprised by Vladimir Putin’s victory in the Russian Presidential elections held on 18 March 2018. It is the fourth time he has been successful at the Presidential ballot box, albeit with a short pause as Prime Minister in between terms. In 2017 he passed the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to become the second-longest serving Russian ruler, behind only Josef Stalin.

And there is no doubt he will claim a broad popular mandate to implement the ambitious (and for the West, worrisome) agenda that he outlined at his state of the nation speech a couple of weeks before the election.

If the official results from the Electoral Committee are to be believed, Putin romped home with over three-quarters of the vote (76.69 per cent), in a contest he didn’t even bother campaigning for. In the process, he easily defeated Pavel Grudinin – a grassroots populist from Russia’s Communist Party (11.77 per cent) – and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ‘clown prince’ of Russian politics (5.65 per cent).

What should we make of elections in phoney democracies like Russia? Are they popular plebiscites on the quality of an individual’s leadership? Do they provide any clue about future wobbles in public confidence or an indication of future policy direction? And to what extent do they even matter at all?

The last question is simplest to answer. In short: they tend not to matter much, especially in the Russian case. Putin enjoys all the advantages of an autocrat. He has a ‘super-presidential’ constitution conveniently put in place by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, over which he has strengthened the power of the presidency even further.

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Putin’s fortunes continue to revolve around his ‘selectorate’, not his electorate: the presidential appointees that dominate the power ministries as well as influential business leaders. His habit of playing divide-and-rule with the various Kremlin clans ensures that there is no potential locus for opposition inside the regime – and no incentive amongst Russian elites to develop one.

There is little chance of a popular ‘colour’ revolution from below either. The Russian state controls the media completely and uses it as an internal and external device for information warfare. In a deliberately ambiguous approach characteristic of illiberal regimes, limited dissent is tolerated and even encouraged. But this is swiftly brought to heel when it threatens to gain momentum. This is done through a combination of negative campaigning, direct coercion, blocking registrations of new parties and personalities, and other tactics like taking advantage of the multiparty system with tacitly-sanctioned spoiler candidates.

If the election was a plebiscite on Putin’s presidency, the best guess is that Russians generally approve of his leadership. He is genuinely popular despite his structural and legal advantages over any other candidate. And there is nothing resembling a cohesive liberal intelligentsia that might challenge him – in fact, many individuals identified in this camp tend to agree with Putin on core issues like national security.

But even though we might make that claim, there is little hard evidence to demonstrate it – such is the nature of central control over the voting process and the reluctance of the population to criticise it.

During the voting process, videos surfaced of Russians patiently waiting in line while ballot boxes were stuffed in front of them. The process was captured on camera so many times that the results from several districts had to be annulled.

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Meanwhile, the Russian Defence Ministry noted that all of the 2,954 Russian servicemen in Syria had voted, and every single vote was for Putin. That’s an impressive tally, but it also inadvertently seemed to communicate the size of Russia’s military deployment in that country.

If actual ballots cast are a poor guide to assessing public support for Putin, then other places we might turn are voter turnout or strong scores for minor candidates.

There are two good reasons for this. First, a declining turnout is indicative of a lack of confidence. Second, when lesser-known candidates poll well, it is often symptomatic of a protest vote.

Yet, here again, there is little reliable data to draw conclusions. The Electoral Commission reported turnout in some Far Eastern districts at 100 per cent, and the overall participation rate as increasing by 2 per cent to an apparently healthy 67.5 per cent overall. While this was no doubt assisted by free food at many polling stations, as well as other attempts to instil a party atmosphere – from selfie competitions and karaoke to cut-price goods for sale near polling booths – it is hard to take such claims seriously.

And in the end, minor candidates did just as well (or poorly) as before, with a familiar pattern of a resounding win for Putin, followed by small tallies for the Marxist-nationalist amalgam that is the Russian Communist Party, and the crypto-fascist Liberal Democratic Party in third place.

Ultimately this means that little has changed in Russian politics, either in voter intentions or the relative positions of its main actors.

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